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July 18, 2004

Grad Union News Good/Bad

Graduate students at American universities have been trying to form unions for more than a decade, largely because universities have shifted more of the undergrad teaching burden from tenured or tenure-track faculty to grad students. Those students have had some success, but it's been a long struggle. Last week there were two major developments in this effort.

The good news: The Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) reached an agreement on a contract with the University of Illinois. (See also News Gazoo story.) As a former member of this union who worked on the campaign for recognition, I couldn't be more pleased. Congratulations, GEO!

The bad news: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled last week that grad students at private institutions can't form unions because they're students, not employees. The logic of this is just ridiculous. Why would being a student preclude me from being an employee? If I take classes from a school, and also work for pay at the school, aren't I both a student and employee? Yes. As an employee in the united states, don't I have a right to form a union? Roughly, Yes:

The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1935 to administer the National Labor Relations Act, the primary law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector. The statute guarantees the right of employees to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers or to refrain from all such activity. Generally applying to all employers involved in interstate commerce--other than airlines, railroads, agriculture, and government--the Act implements the national labor policy of assuring free choice and encouraging collective bargaining as a means of maintaining industrial peace. Through the years, Congress has amended the Act and the Board and courts have developed a body of law drawn from the statute.

Witness the power of "an independent federal agency" — it doesn't matter what Congress says the law is because the NLRB can "administer" that law however it sees fit. This is why I'm looking forward to taking Administrative Law this fall—so I can learn the most effective ways to challenge and change decisions of agencies like the NLRB.

Posted July 18, 2004 12:43 PM | general politics

I've never actually belonged to a union before; I've been "management" my whole career. However, I have a good friend who is very active in GEO here (at Michigan) and is trying to get me to join. Plus, I'd like to teach while I'm here, so we'll see. I'm told that we have a great union here (something like the 2nd oldest in the country) and, consequently, have a great contract. "Our" next mission is to expand health care coverage...

Posted by: Denise at July 19, 2004 07:06 AM

That's right. When I was at Illinois we looked longingly at Michigan's grad union and used it as a model for organizing. We'd visit graduate students and say things like, "Wouldn't you like dental coverage? Michigan's got a grad union and they have dental coverage! How about vision care? It's covered under the union contract at Michigan!" It was pretty convincing stuff.

I'll readily agree that in many respects big labor has become nearly as corrupt as big business, but I'd still rather be on the side of the union any day. That way, I can still hope to make a positive difference.

Posted by: ambimb at July 19, 2004 08:29 PM

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